David and Adair Keller started their married life together in 1977 at Camp Lejeune, a military training base on the Atlantic Coast in Jacksonville, North Carolina. David was a Marine Corps field artillery officer then, and they lived together on the base for about six months.
But that sojourn had an outsize impact on their lives.
Forty years later, in January 2018, Adair was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She died six months later at age 68. There’s a chance her illness was caused by toxic chemicals that seeped into the water military families at the base drank, cooked with, and washed with for decades.
When the PACT Act passed last August, David asked a neighbor who worked at a personal injury law firm in Greenville, South Carolina, if he thought he might have a case. Now Keller is filing a wrongful death claim against the federal government under a section of that measure that allows veterans, their family members, and others who spent at least 30 days at Camp Lejeune between Aug. 1, 1953, and the end of 1987 to seek damages against the government for harm caused by exposure to the toxic water.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act didn’t attract the spotlight as the aspects of PACT that deal with the harms soldiers experienced from burn pit fumes overseas did. But for veterans who served at this North Carolina post, it is the realization of a decades-long effort to hold the government accountable.
As cases begin to proceed through the legal system, some veterans’ advocates worry that families who have already suffered from toxic exposure may get shortchanged by a process that’s supposed to provide them with a measure of closure and financial relief. They support limiting lawyers’ fees, some of which may exceed half of a veteran’s award.
The government estimates as many as a million people were exposed to Camp Lejeune’s contaminated water during the 34-year period covered by the law. Personal injury lawyers have taken notice. In recent months, TV ads trying to drum up business have been impossible to ignore: “If you or a loved one were stationed at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 and developed cancer, call now. You may be entitled to significant compensation.”
During the year that ended in March, TV ads soliciting Camp Lejeune claims reached an estimated $123 million, according to X Ante, a company that tracks mass tort litigation advertising. Camp Lejeune TV ads currently rank third among the top targets for mass tort claims since 2012, behind only asbestos and mesothelioma ($619 million) and Roundup weed killer ($132 million).
“The attorneys have calculated out that they stand to make a pot of money,” said Autrey James, chairman of the American Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission. “We need Congress to put caps on how much these attorneys can charge.”
For Keller, a 73-year-old former workers’ compensation lawyer, it’s a matter of accountability. Because of his experience, he came out of retirement last year to represent Camp Lejeune victims. He is now working part time at the Greenville law firm he spoke with originally and that now represents his late wife. It currently has roughly 65 Camp Lejeune cases.
Under the law, veterans must first file an administrative claim with the Judge Advocate General of the Navy’s Tort Claims Unit. If, after six months, the Navy hasn’t settled the claim, or if it denies the claim, veterans can file suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
So far, approximately 23,000 claims have been filed with the Navy, none of which have been fully adjudicated, said Patricia Babb, a spokesperson for the Judge Advocate General’s office.
This legal remedy has been a long time coming. In the early 1980s, the Marine Corps learned that three of Camp Lejeune’s water distribution systems were contaminated with industrial chemicals that had seeped into the water from leaking underground storage tanks, industrial spills, and waste disposal sites. The Corps shut them down in the mid-1980s and the area was declared a hazardous waste site in 1989 under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund law.
Federal studies later showed that toxic chemicals in the water — benzene, vinyl chloride, and TCE, among others — were present at levels that could have caused a range of cancers and other serious illnesses. In 2012, after an intense lobbying campaign by veterans, Congress passed a law that gave veterans and their families free medical care if they got sick with any of more than a dozen diseases associated with the toxic water.
But thousands of veterans who felt the Navy had stonewalled and delayed addressing the contamination filed civil suits seeking damages. In 2019, the federal government denied all the claims, citing state and federal statutes that shielded the government.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act opened a two-year window for veterans and their families to pursue cases against the federal government.
And Liz Hartman, commander of American Legion Post 539 in nearby New Bern, now sees new reason for alarm. Some veterans are signing contingency fee contracts in which they agree to pay lawyers representing them 40% to 60% of any money they receive, Hartman said.
“Many of these people are elderly and very vulnerable, and they’re being preyed upon,” she said.
Personal injury lawyers generally work on a contingency basis. If they win the case, they receive a portion of the award, often one-third. If they lose, they get nothing. The firm Keller is working with charges 40% for Camp Lejeune cases.
If anything, fees for the Camp Lejeune cases should be lower than usual, not higher, said Matt Webb, senior vice president for legal reform policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform.
“The PACT Act changed the burden of proof and made it so much easier for claimants to win their cases,” he said. Under the law, the evidence must show that the exposure was as likely as not to have caused the harm, rather than having to prove that there’s a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true, called a “preponderance” standard.
In addition, the law requires that any award a veteran receives be offset by any amount they received in a disability payment or health benefit related to their condition. This could substantially reduce the amount of their award.
Veterans “could end up owing money,” Webb said. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but particularly if a lawyer is taking a huge chunk in fees, it could happen.”
Trial lawyers say a marginally lower burden of proof doesn’t mean the cases will be easy to win.
It’s a new law with no case law or judicial opinions to refer to, said Mike Cox, a Livonia, Michigan, lawyer and former Marine infantryman who was stationed at Camp Lejeune in the early 1980s. He’s now representing more than 200 veterans in such cases.
Many of the diseases and conditions people developed are not among those the government acknowledges may be linked to the contaminated water, Cox said. Even for veterans whose illnesses are recognized by the government, lawyers will have to show where they were based, what kind of cancer they have, and their level of toxic exposure, he said. His fee for representing these veterans is 33% of any award they receive.
In addition to proving they were stationed at Camp Lejeune during the years covered by the law, “the claimant also must demonstrate to the Navy he/she is suffering from an injury that is related to the exposure to (or ingestion of) contaminated water,” said Babb, the Judge Advocate General spokesperson.
With stories circulating of attorney contingency fees that could potentially eat up more than half of veterans’ awards, some lawmakers have stepped in.
Under a bill proposed by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Camp Lejeune attorney fees would be capped at 20% in cases settled as administrative claims and 33.3% in those filed as civil lawsuits in court.
Another House proposal, introduced by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Mike Bost (R-Ill.), is identical to one introduced in the Senate by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), which would cap fees at 12% and 17% under similar circumstances.
According to David Keller, based on his conversations with other lawyers, “nobody is objecting to something that is reasonable,” such as caps at 20% and 33%.
Many of Keller’s clients are older men who are really sick and probably won’t live long, he said. Some tell him they’re reluctant to sue the government.
“What I say to them is, ‘When we signed the contract with Uncle Sam, we gave Uncle Sam a blank check for our arms, our legs, and maybe even our lives. But we didn’t sign a blank check to get a serious disease from contaminated water,’ either them or their spouses or children.”